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A Love Letter to Monhegan Island

October 4, 2017  |  by Bryan Pfeiffer  |  50 comments  | 

Dear Monhegan Island,

Because a heart attack kept me from making my annual visit this autumn, it would far too easy for me to write that my heart aches or that I’m heartsick about missing you. But you, Monhegan, do not tolerate cliché. You defy predictability.

So I will not dwell on how I miss your migrating songbirds, which drop at dawn into the village and woods each fall. Yes, I long to see your warblers and vireos, your Monarchs and darners, your castaways, human or otherwise, who have no business being lost 10 miles out to sea.

But what I miss most is the Monhegan melting pot.

In the fog before dawn, when I would be walking your gravel roads, I miss the distant moan of gray seals and, breathing at my back, the roar and rumble of a pickup lacking its muffler. I miss the smell of run-over apples on the cul-de-sac near Lobster Cove and the scent of burning garbage near Fish Beach.

I miss the unkempt, weedy stacks of lobster traps and my evening pint of Trap Stacker Special Ale (8.9% ABV) at Monhegan Brewing Company. At that nano-brewery each evening, I miss the banter and laughter from the island’s year-rounders and from the visitors who’ve had one or two too many, all gathered besides Matt and Mary Weber’s flashy buoys and neatly stacked traps, all of us beneath Monarchs alighting to spend the night high in the spruces overlooking this outdoor saloon.

I miss Monhegan’s split personality — its most welcoming residents, who even after a long season of tourists blowing in and out like Nor’easters, greet me each year as if I belong, as well as the residents who, for ample good reason, need not be bothered with interlopers like me. I even miss not knowing whether to wave or smile at some of you; it reaffirms for me that Monhegan is not my home but rather an adventure in human character, defying convention or stereotype: a mix of artists and outlaws, retired professionals and hard drinkers, entrepreneurs and slackers — all packed onto an island barely a mile-and-a-half long and a half-mile wide. Now there’s a community I want to know.

And in my two decades of journeys to Monhegan, I have been lucky enough to come to know some of your wonderful people. This fall I miss Lisa Brackett’s smile and sandwiches, and, oh, how I miss her warm donuts. At the Black Duck, I miss Pam’s spunk and attitude and wisdom, not to mention her life-saving espressos, along with Barbara’s welcoming apartment (where Ruth and I stay) and her general view of island life — and beyond — from behind the counter. And I miss shooting the shit with Ray or whoever else sits there in the Black Duck, where I still learn so much about island life and its small-town politics.

I miss Donna’s irreverence, lovely smile, bird feeders and hair (this island’s second lighthouse). I miss drinking Scotch whisky with Jane and Kate on the porch of Pitkin Cottage, where each fall I rekindle my undying crush on Jane Curtis (if only I was 40 years older — Ruth understands, at least I think so). And just across the way, I miss Bill and Jackie at the Lupine Gallery, where they allow me to browse wistfully at paintings that make me weep, and where they embody this island’s artistic heritage and so much of its pride. Yet another expression of that pride is the Monhegan Museum of Art and History, where you can spend a lifetime and learn but a fraction of this island’s secrets.

At my longest-standing island refuge, Monhegan House, innkeepers Holden and Sue Nelson have welcomed me and my birding groups with so much comfort and skill and hospitality for so many years. They are business associates and friends. I miss Mike’s mastery in the kitchen (best food on Monhegan) and Nick’s transport services. I miss needling the yoga-and-knitting group each fall at Monhegan House, and talking baseball and life with Joey in the dining room.

Among the many other hard workers on this island, Angela and Travis, always so welcoming, manage to blend island civic pride, hard work and just the right amount of rebelliousness. Kathy, Sue, Ronnie and a few others have managed to coax an astonishing bounty of vegetables from this island — from granite to plate. John and Winnie, whether they’re being innkeepers or fishing for lobster, also exemplify the island’s work ethic — when they will slow down I do not know. Same goes for Kole and Tara, from whom I have also learned about everything from the lighthouse to the firehouse. And like the rest of the island, I will miss Victor Lord, a sage and leader on this island, whom I regret to say that I did not get to know nearly well enough.

I am certain that I’m omitting far too many other people here. For that I apologize. (Wait, Tobey, at long last I must get a massage!) And in some ways, this is a risky blog post on my part. It might appear that I know enough people and enough of Monhegan’s idiosyncrasies to feel a part of this island community. Yet I am only a small part of Monhegan’s wild nature and human nature. For the past two decades, I’ve come to you, Monhegan, for your birds and other flying things — and then I’ve left. Yet during those fleeting visits each year, I’ve come to appreciate most of all the Monhegan community. And I’ve not even mentioned your artists and birders, many of whom have sent me the warmest wishes for a recovery, nor have I forgotten Tilly (Tilly, please don’t kill birds!).

So forgive me, Monhegan, for what I assume or do not know about you. Monhegan Island, for all the pastoralism and iconoclasm it projects to the world, oddly enough does not always define itself. We do that. We define you. Perhaps unfairly, we visitors harbor our own notions of your turf and community. Maybe that explains some of Monhegan’s seduction — maybe that, along with the plain truth that this island is one of the most beautiful places on Planet Earth. I hope to discover more of your beauty and secrets next spring when the warblers fly and melting pot simmers.

Wistfully and with a healing heart,

Bryan Pfeiffer

  1. Colleen K/. says:

    I just reread this blog and am remembering the birding trip w/ a great group & you in 2012 (if I remember correctly). That’s when Mohegan crept into my heart and has lodged itself forever. All of what you have said resonates with my memory of that trip. I will return to visit again, and I’ll delight in its attributes, but it won’t be the same w/out you along…just different and another great adventure.

  2. Shannon says:

    Monhegan crawled/leapt into my heart several years ago and never let go! Though I have been about 6 times ,it continually calls to me to return. It was wonderful to “visit” it again through your eyes and words!


    Your photos and beautiful words so captured how I feel about that Island, 12 miles out to sea.Such a magical place to renew oneself to its core. Just spent 9 days there with 4 other ALONGSHORE LADIES.I feel so lucky to have such a place known to my heart and soul, to go to as often as I can.Always new, always old and it always renews my spirits.Thank you and the best of health to you….and a return trip soon.

  4. Mimi Hue says:

    Speedy recovery, Bryan…Hope you get to go next year…I just came back from Monhegan Island…Your letter touches my heart as I feel the same about the island…I miss it and have beautiful memories of this special place

  5. Maria Casey says:

    Dear Bryan, What a beuatiful love story!! You captured what so many of us feel about Monhegan! Thank you for writing and sharing! The photos are also spectacular!! We missed seeing you and Ruth this September! Hoping you’re feeling stronger with each passing day. We will see you on Monhehgan next year! Hugs! Maria and Mike (friends of Barb and Doug).

  6. Tara says:

    We missed seeing you this year and wish you thorough recovery. 🙂

  7. Sylvia Jurkowski says:

    I loved reading this and I especially loved your wonderful photographs!

  8. Miguel Estrada says:

    Wow. What a wonderful post. It provided a quick trip to the island if only in our dreams. Thank you and hope you recover fully and are able to visit again.

  9. James Taft says:

    I Love Monheagan too Brian. Have seen some great Birds there.

  10. Leda says:

    Wonderful, Bryan. I didn’t know about the heart attack! Please continue healing. We go to Monhegan almost every June, but I’d love to be there when you are some year and get a bird tour. Lots of love,

  11. Barbara Morris says:

    Very Nice, letter to Monhegan.
    Barbara Morris

  12. Charlotte Matthews says:


  13. Tom Ellis says:

    Thank you for these wonderful words I have year to write…you did it for me and the many others who love the island and its gifts

  14. I just enjoyed reading this so much. I know or know of most of the people you’ve mentioned (we’ve been visiting since 2006) – Monhegan is a magical place that pulls at your heart strings 😉 Feel better and your visit next year will be that much sweeter!

  15. Sue Cloutier says:

    Best writing by you, Bryan… and best wishes from me. Thank you again for sharing.

  16. KEVIN IRVIN says:

    Wonderfully written, and since I too missed my September visit, this so touches my soul.
    Be well, and these thoughts and memories will get us all through until our next visits!

  17. Kevin Beers says:

    This is a terrific piece that really captures all the dimensions of that special island. Thank you for sharing it.

    • Bryan says:

      Thanks, Kevin. And thanks to you for sharing the beauty of that island — its light and buildings and rock, among many other things — on canvas.

  18. Lucinda McCloud says:

    Dear Bryan,
    May your past memories sustain you this year, and may your faith also sustain you in knowing you’ll be back and enjoy Mohegan in MANY years to come!
    Much love to you and Ruth,

  19. Delia Clark says:

    Beautifully written, Bryan! I’ve loved Monhegan ever since Tim and I honeymooned there quite a while ago! Best wishes for a healing heart!

  20. Ron Wiesen says:

    Beautiful piece, Bryan! Norma and I remember our visit there with great fondness. Thank you for introducing us to Monhegan!

  21. Colleen A. Kube says:

    Well said… Even though I’ve only been once w/ your birding group I have a few of the same feelings you mentioned here. I look forward to another birding adventure to this lovely island. I want to explore all the places I’ve not gotten to yet. Yes also talking baseball w/ Bryan a fellow Michigander even if the Tigers aren’t in the postseason. Hope you’re healing and enjoying some of this wonderful fall weather.

  22. Helen Rabin says:

    Our first trip there this summer. Stunned by such a beautiful place, preserved for visitors to wander almost anywhere. Learned that Theodore Edison, son of Thomas, had the vision,with others, to buy and maintain for the public much of the island, and especially the ocean side with its cliffs and rocks and gorgeous views… A big contrast with Maine’s 5000 mile mainland coast, which is mostly private property.

  23. Charlie Hewson says:

    Wonderful piece of memories, history, friendships, birding, and trivia. I am fortunate to have been on several of your birding trips and hope to have a chance to do more in the future.

  24. Carole says:

    After that beautiful piece of writing, I miss Monhegan too, and I’ve never even been there!
    Next year, Bryan.

  25. Jackie Boegel says:

    We missed you this fall, Bryan, and thought of you often. Keep on getting stronger and we’ll see you next year! Thanks for the love, right back atcha. J & B

  26. Barbara Carr says:

    I am very glad I had the opportunity to meet you in person & to experience Monhegan, once, in your company!

    With best wishes, always,


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